Despite receiving widespread acclaim in Japan—with a catalog spanning nine books, and having won both the Akutagawa Prize and Tanizaki Prize—Kawakami Mieko is only now getting the international recognition she deserves. Following up 2018’s Ms. Ice Sandwich, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, she hit her stride with 2020’s Breasts and Eggs, translated by the duo of Sam Bett and David Boyd, which was named one of TIME‘s 10 Best Books of 2020, and a Notable Book of the Year from The New York Times. Bett and Boyd have a new translation of Heaven, Kawakami’s first full-length novel, now in English for the first time.
After hearing Bett and Boyd speak last year in conversation with Kawakami about Breasts and Eggs, I became fascinated by the idea of a collaborative translation, as well as how they approached Kawakami’s work, which between Breasts and Eggs and Heaven is known for her focus on female characters, their perspectives and lives, shifts in tone between written language and spoken language, and moments of experimental prose.
I had the opportunity to speak with Bett and Boyd via Zoom to talk about the process of a collaborative translation, the decisions that had to be made in regards to Kawakami’s work, and the responsibility of the translator.
Ian Battaglia: Last year, hearing you guys talk about Breasts and Eggs, I heard a little bit about a gathering of translators, perhaps with the intention to translate Kawakami Mieko’s work.
Could you guys talk a little bit about how you initially got connected with her?
David Boyd: I met Mieko in 2011 at a translation workshop in Norwich. The British Centre for Literary Translation runs a week-long workshop there every year. It’s a great opportunity for translators. You can discuss the text with the author and work closely with other translators.
That year, Mieko was the author and Michael Emmerich led the workshop. This summer, they have Tomoka Shibasaki and Polly Barton for the Japanese group. That was how I met Mieko, but Sam wasn’t there for that… Sam, you met her later on, right?
Sam Bett: Much later, in 2017.
And at what point was the idea of a collaborative translation first discussed?
Sam Bett: Before any kind of formal collaboration, I read David’s stuff in Monkey Business, this journal of Japanese literature in translation, which has recently been reincarnated as Monkey. David was in every issue, and I remember being at Barnes and Noble and looking at this thing and thinking, ‘How can I get involved with this?’ So I spent three or four hours writing an email to David, talking about what I noticed in his most recent translation, and after a few promising exchanges, we decided to meet for coffee.
I’m from [Massachusetts], and he happened to be there. We met up and hit it off, and started sharing work, without realizing we were sort of preparing for collaborating.
David was working on some short stories for Mieko, because they had been involved in that workshop in the past and had stayed connected. Those [initial collaborations] weren’t really co-translations, since David did the whole first draft himself and I only provided feedback, but all the collaborative skills that we use now were present in the process in some form.
David Boyd: As Sam was saying, we were already working together on Mieko’s stories. I was translating a few of her short stories, and I asked Sam to look at them. His feedback was great. We enjoyed collaborating that way, so it made sense to take things to the next level.
Once we made that decision, we had to make sure that we were creating a reasonably consistent voice between the two of us…
And in creating that consistent voice, what’s your guys’ actual day-to-day process for this? How was that broken down and developed over time?
Sam Bett: Well, we’re finishing the third of three books for this contract now. Heaven‘s coming out in May, but we’re finishing the third. So at this point, we’ve gone through the whole process three times.
It’s varied a bit from book to book, but in general, we divvied up the work into dialogue and what you could call “non-dialogue.” Part of it was a practical concern, because we needed something other than just taking a machete and cutting the book in half. The phrase I like to use is “dividing the work along preexisting lines.”
At the same time, it’s not like David just did the dialogue and I did the rest and then we submitted it. We’re both going over each other’s work, extensively, at different stages of the project. What this means in practice is that if a section or chapter had far more dialogue than usual, I would spend more time editing David’s drafts, while if it had less dialogue, I would spend more time producing my own drafts, and vice versa. We each do a side-by-side concordance pass, where we check the translation against the original, as well as a pass where we try to read the text as English, without reference to the original. Partnering with another translator allows for things you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
I’d like to add, though, that I don’t think co-translation is inherently a better process. I do think it was probably better for these books. Writing a book and translating a book are obviously not the same thing, but weirdly enough, I think it’s easier to imagine two people writing a book together than two people translating a book, because there’s no pretense of the authors disappearing into the fog of creativity, whereas there is this idea that the translators should or can disappear.
There is sort of the idea that that translator is meant to slip into the work in a certain way. There’s been a lot made recently about how apparent a translator’s voice should be or shouldn’t be, which feels like perhaps the wrong question to me, but I was wondering what you guys felt about it.
David Boyd: It’s not about whether it should or shouldn’t be there. It’s there. That said, of course the translator can be loud or quiet on the page. There are different ways to do it. I agree with translator Don Mee Choi, who recently said, “I’m that tongue that has licked and groomed every word and punctuation. So whether you see me or not is not my problem. The real problem is the slimy saliva my tongue has left behind…” Beautifully put, I think.
Sam Bett: And I think this is a good example of what is kind of institutionally anointed as passing for neutrality.
A book could be praised for using “natural” English, depending on what an audience or critic is expecting, or has been prepared to expect, and there is no single dialect of English we can justifiably hold up as a model of what sounds “natural” or “neutral.” I’m from Boston. If you grew up in South Africa or Hong Kong, speaking English at home, and read something I translated, would my version of English sound neutral? Should this ever be our goal?
There are other conversations to be had about conspicuousness, the degree to which the language of a translation can or should sound like it’s rooted in the original culture, and to what degree a translator should use idioms that sound more closely associated with the target language than the text being translated.
As you move on to the third book, how has the process of translation shifted for you guys starting with Breasts and Eggs and through Heaven? Does it still feel the same, or have you refined it?
David Boyd: I think it’s a different process now. It depends on the book. The books themselves are so different. I don’t think we did anything to explicitly revise our strategy; we know that each book requires its own approach.
With Heaven, I felt like it played out in a really interesting way. Because of how we divided it, I was able to more or less become Kojima. She does most of the speaking throughout the novel. Sam took on the part of the narrator. Actually, across the books, Mieko’s narrators seem to have this in common: they don’t dominate the dialogue. They’re listeners.
While Sam usually handles the non-dialogue and I usually handle the dialogue, there have been plenty of exceptions. When we were editing Heaven, for example, we often came to parts where we were unsure about who wrote what, and those moments were deeply satisfying. Maybe that’s what translation is really about: reaching a point where you no longer know if the words are yours are not.
Sam Bett: Yeah, I was actually going to say there’s a way in which we’ve learned so much about the other person’s style that I know I’ve almost hyper-internalized the way David translates. And sometimes that means I will translate that way, almost like I’m being him.
One thing that seems to be the same, is that towards the end of our time working on a book, we’ll hit this point where we’ll look at the tracked changes and be unable to believe that the other person’s changes weren’t ours, or vice versa. It really does begin to blur.
David Boyd: We’ll be on the phone, and one of us is passionately defending some translation to the other, and then we realize, many minutes later, that it was the person who was defending the line who had taken an issue with it. For example, I was trying desperately to convince Sam that something that he had written was right. At some point, this kind of confusion develops…
Sam Bett: I wouldn’t personally describe it as “confusion” so much as there is this kind of separation between myself and the work. When a book is almost fully formed, it starts becoming like a third person in a way, or a space that has its own internal logic, almost capable of making its own decisions.
While working on the third book, we’ve continued to make discoveries about how to collaborate and edit each other’s work. Not all of those discoveries are universally applicable, but I’ve been reminded yet again that books have a way of teaching you how they need to be edited, if you listen.
What sorts of issues have you guys had to problem-solve through the collaborative process that you probably wouldn’t have had to work through alone?
David Boyd: It’s a very different process. First of all, there’s somebody there to hold you accountable. That’s not typically the case when you’re working on your own. Even if you’re working closely with an editor, they’re almost always working with the translation and not the original. It’s a luxury to be able to go into the original story with someone else.
When we’re going over a translation, all kinds of things come up: “Would this character say that?” “Is that how these scenes connect?” “What does this line really mean?” These are the questions we ask ourselves when translating alone, but it changes the process on a fundamental level when that becomes a real conversation with another translator.
It’s a funny balance when we discuss things. Most of the time, we’re open to change. We want to listen to each other and make the text better. But there are also moments where we leave little notes for each other saying, “I’d like to keep this just the way it is.”
Sam Bett: It’s a question of seeing it differently versus actually hitting an impasse. I think it’s pretty rare that we are truly at odds. There are times when we’re tired, we both just happened to be the same kind of tired in a way that we can’t laugh out of it or something. In those moments, I’m always aware that it shouldn’t be as hard as it is, [working on] this line or whatever it is—that you probably just need a hamburger, you know?
David, I’m going to use a metaphor that I’ve never used before, but I honestly feel like co-translating is like holding hands in a way, where you still have this other hand free. Very rarely do I feel like I make a fist with my other hand. Most of the time in what you might call a conflict, it really felt more like pulling on the other person’s hand than head-on confrontation. It’s rare to actually forget about the hand you’re holding and make the fist. But we always have that freedom, right? I know I’m always waving that other hand around in the air.
When you’re doing things alone, as both of us have, you use different muscles, and when someone else is going to be involved, you can lean into the other person in a way that is helpful. Or maybe you’ll overdo things. As with any relationship, all sorts of things can happen, that’s why I don’t think [co-translation is] inherently better or worse. The hope is that the [through the] multiplication of our powers, we become greater than our individual abilities.
Japanese as a language has a lot of different complications that can be difficult to convey in English; different politeness or formality levels, written language versus spoken language, and gendered language, for example. A lot of that is very prevalent in Kawakami Mieko’s work. How did those different complexities affect the translation process?
Sam Bett: Sometimes it’s those harder things that are the easiest to resolve, because you have a concrete challenge. It seems like, “Okay, here this person is talking in a way that we can’t do in English,” and then the ego says, “Oh yeah?”
So oftentimes the hardest passages are the ones that don’t have any obvious or flashy challenge. There’s just something going on that makes it harder.
David Boyd: Heaven had plenty of those. We left some of those questions open while we worked. For example, with Kojima, how does she sound different in her letters, compared to when she’s speaking?
Things like that take a lot of thought. Working on a novel like this, some elements just fall into place, but others don’t really click. Not immediately. You have to let them sit, and then go back.
There are also things that you kind of want to keep going back to, to make sure that you’ve handled them responsibly. How we represented the bullies, for example. That was something that Sam and I spent a lot of time discussing over the phone. We both felt like these weren’t typical or stereotypical bullies. They’re attractive and they get the best grades. Toward the end, when we were going back over the translation, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t pulling the bullies in an unfair direction, particularly in the dialogue.
This is especially true of Momose. I know that he’s a villain on some level, but there are sides to him that are never fully explained within the text. There are certain pockets in Heaven, these corners that you just can’t see around. You have to come to your own conclusions; Sam and I did that, largely as a collaborative process, where we spoke to each other and said, “Okay, I’m not seeing what’s around this particular corner. Do you see it?” And once we’ve agreed that there’s no way to see beyond that point, then we can have a fun conversation.
Sam Bett: Just to anchor that with one example, I think the one that comes to mind first and foremost is [regarding] Momose: Is he living with an illness? Does he have lupus? Does he have cancer? Something is affecting Momose, you know what I’m talking about, right David?
David Boyd: He’s in the hospital for a reason, right?
Sam Bett: Right, and he can’t participate in gym class. This is a major thing.
Something I wanted to add about the bullying, and the bullies: This is what we call them, bullies, right? I don’t believe systems are fully responsible for people’s actions. But in this case, I think it’s really interesting that the Japanese word is “bullying”; it’s not “bullies,” right? It’s easier to understand as a phenomenon.
Because yes, Momose and Ninomiya and all these guys are bullies, but who’s doing the dirty work, kicking the narrator in the face? They’re these no-name kids who don’t have anything going for them either. Whatever Kojima thinks [she and the narrator are] protecting, these kids have relinquished it for safety. In that sense, maybe all that stands between Kojima and this version of safety is her principles. There’s an incredible tension in her character because she realizes all she has to do is pick on someone else and then she’s saved.
Bullying doesn’t mean one thing, and the bullies aren’t just one thing. David mentioned this idea of something you have to resolve on your own. This is part of reading; it isn’t just because we’re translators. But we have to equip the reader with the information they need so that they can access the periphery of the book. The book is not just a square—it’s a thing you can duck your head into, or maybe go into entirely—the stuff beyond the limits of the story, or else it would just sort of feel like a yarn or a sketch.
A lot of the time, the decisions we’re making are limiting or delimiting the text. We come at it with all this possibility, it’s not like it’s completely open to interpretation; there are certain things we have to decide. Not certain things, everything. We’re making decisions about the authors’ decisions, and those are by necessity going to crop the English version of the book in certain ways.
David Boyd: Like I mentioned earlier, there are also parts of the book that are just beyond the reader’s vision. We’re never allowed to fully grasp the situation. This affected our translation, as well. There were times when Sam and I had to stop and ask, “We don’t know X, right? The text doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer, does it?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the times when Kojima misspeaks. She says “combustion” instead of “consumption,” and she also says “someday best” instead of “Sunday best.” During the editing process, proofreaders flagged these to ask us if they were mistakes.
We tried to have Momose do a similar thing at one point in the translation: When Momose’s talking with the narrator outside of the hospital, he says that the narrator is “cross-eyed.” The term used in Japanese is “shashi,” which means strabismus. It can mean wall-eyed or cross-eyed. We know that the narrator is wall-eyed, but in this case we felt like we had to make a particular decision. If we’d had Momose say “You’re wall-eyed and I’m not,” it would have sounded too sterile. It would have been even worse if he’d used the word “strabismus.” Sam and I spoke about this at length and eventually decided that we needed the impact of “cross-eyed.”
Momose’s speech outside the hospital is just incredible. It just underlines all that nuance you guys are talking about. David, I’m guessing that fell under your “jurisdiction.” Can you talk specifically about that scene?
David Boyd: Yes, that was under my jurisdiction initially. I drafted the scene, but that was actually one of the first parts of the book that we did. Sam and I spent so much time working on it together. It was one of the sample sections that we translated before really going into the book. We did five or six passages that way.
If I remember correctly, Mieko chose the sections for the sample. I like to think that she picked this scene because she knew that it would help us establish the voices and themes that matter most in the novel.
Sam Bett: This speaks to something I don’t think we’ve talked about in an interview before. We’re speaking very casually about doing this in parts, but what that has to mean at a certain level is we don’t know what the other person did cause it’s not like we’re sitting in a room together doing it.
So very often the order has been different in various parts of the books. It has to be consistent throughout, but there might be a chapter where I’m working around David’s dialogue, meaning he drafted it ahead of time. There might be a chapter or more where it’s the other way around, and I go first, then David comes in.
David Boyd: And in this particular case, it felt different, because we were focused on that section on its own. We weren’t working on the entire book at once, which is what we typically do.
So we had this scene. To me, it’s an incredible moment. It comes rather late in the book, and up until that point, it feels like the narrator has a pretty good grasp on things. As the reader, you’re thinking, “I know what’s happening here.” And then the floor drops; it’s a very different perspective from the one you’ve been given [up to that point], and the story becomes so much deeper as a result.
I’ve always felt this way as a reader of Mieko’s fiction, but I love how she writes multiple perspectives into her work. Maybe I’m being too extreme, but I haven’t seen many other writers who allow contradictory viewpoints to coexist along those lines. It’s a critical part of Mieko’s writing, and she does it so well.
Sam Bett: I completely agree. It’s really common to have the naysayers in a book really be straw men and just kind of be there to be torched or whatever; they’re not a full person.
To speak specifically to the way I think Mieko does this, I don’t think she’s scared of undermining what might be viewed as the principles of the characters who are easiest to relate to. I mean, this is part of being alive. If you’re reading a novel, hopefully part of what you want is to be inside somebody else’s head, because that’s what you’re getting yourself into when you read a book of almost any kind: another head, or probably lots of different heads.
What we’re seeing in that scene is not just novelistic. We’re realizing if there’s a philosophy to Heaven, it’s not just what the narrator thinks. It’s represented by these combined viewpoints that are adding different types of stress, or maybe adding pain and comfort variously at different times.
There’s a comfort that comes from knowing you are a bully or not a bully, for example. And that’s part of what that scene is about. Like when Momose says, “This doesn’t matter; I’m not doing this for a reason.” Because what could be worse than finding out the bullies did it “just because”?
David Boyd: And this is the opposite of Kojima’s “everything happens for a reason,” isn’t it?
Sam Bett: Right. And [how Kojima says] that we have signs, right? For Mieko to be able to make space for those polar viewpoints without making it seem like we’re going from “red world” to “blue world” in a video game… But I think that’s demonstrated throughout the book, right? For example, Momose doesn’t really care about Kojima as a character, they don’t all get picked on equally.
Doesn’t he almost not seem to remember her? I think the narrator brings her up and Momose’s response is like, “Who? Who are you talking about?”
Sam Bett: Yeah.
David Boyd: That’s right. “Kojima? Oh, her.”
It’s those little pockets that I love most about this book. As translators, we’re supposed to be constructing this world, right? At the same time, it’s not entirely about what we build. There are these unknowns, these hidden depths. It’s important to leave those spaces unfilled.
I feel the same way about Kojima’s connection with her father. We never meet him. We only see him through Kojima’s eyes. Still, we get a very clear sense that there’s a lot more to the story, more than what Kojima is seeing. It’s funny, now that the book is here, readers are sharing their thoughts with us, and they’re picking up on all sorts of elements in the translation that weren’t our explicit focus… It’s a good feeling to have readers see things like that, to understand the novel in their own way.
Sam, you made an Instagram post recently where you were doing some self-inquiry on the role of translation in culture and spanning cultures, specifically in regards to the Asian American community and your work in Japanese translation. I just wanted to get both of your points on the purpose of translation, and how that space can be made more open and connected.
Sam Bett: I went to college and I studied Japanese as a “foreign” language, then studied abroad and lived in Japan, a culture that was very new to me. But what if you grew up in a Japanese-American family? Or were raised in Japan and went to international school?
Maybe you’re a member of the Asian diaspora, but you grew up being asked to read through a curriculum of mostly white and mostly American authors, for example. Reading about people who don’t look like you or sound like the people who raised you. Translations are often talked about as offering a different voice from a different place, but a book that feels like a new world to one reader might feel like home to another. I think we need to translate for readers who find the work to be familiar as much as for those who find it distinct from their lived experience.
I’m hoping these books can help readers find voices and stories they’ve been searching for, or didn’t even know that they were missing.
David Boyd: Translation can do so many things. I don’t believe that literary translation is inherently radical. It can obviously be used to colonialist ends, for example. It can transform society in good and bad ways. You can influence how people think about certain things. It all depends on what you do with it.
On every level, what we do with every word, literally every word, shapes the translation. This isn’t just about style. Everything we do casts the text in a particular light. That text stands in for the source text. On the surface, translation probably seems kind of simple, but there’s a lot of depth to it.
Being a translator comes with a lot of responsibility. You want to do right by everyone: the author, the text, the reader… As the translator, you’re right in the middle of everything—and it really feels that way.
Ian J. Battaglia is a writer based out of Chicago, as well as the New Initiatives Director and an Editor at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, and Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.